The BBC’s Natural History unit is the stuff of legends. They have been producing beautifully-shot, innovative nature documentaries since before most of us were born, and with the weight of the BBC behind them their productions are only getting better. David Attenborough is a natural treasure in his own right, a brilliant presenter blessed with a voice that is now the gold standard for documentary narration.
All of this you know and don’t need to get from a sports website. But while Attenborough’s new show, Seven Worlds, One Planet, is being reviewed elsewhere, nobody else is willing to ask the most important question about it. Is this sports? And, if so, how sports?
SB Nation has you covered. We’ll grade each scene of each episode for aesthetics, competitiveness and difficulty, and give the definitive answer on what the world desperately wants to know: whether or not what we’ve just seen is sports.
Episode 1 Antarctica
Scene 1: Weddell Seals
The Weddell seal is one of the most ridiculous, depressing creatures on the planet. It is, as far as I know, the most southerly-living mammal, staying close to the Antarctic landmass even in deep winter. Since it’s a seal, it needs to breathe air, and so it spends all winter gnawing away at the ice to prevent its breathing holes from freezing over. Chewing ice all your life is a good way of wearing your teeth down quickly, and when that happens, no more breathing. Weddell seals, as Attenborough says, die young.
Why do they live like this? It’s simple: spending winter on the Antarctic ice shelves means that there are no predators able to interfere with the breeding season (which technically takes place in ‘spring’, but if any spring deserves scare quotes ...). Of course, that also means their pups are born into the most brutal environment in the world, and until they learn to swim, they’re left exposed to storms.
Seal pups have their mothers for protection against the worst of the blizzards, but when a storm gets bad enough, the adults are forced to seek shelter underwater. The babies then have to fend for themselves against the howling fury of an Antarctic storm. This seems unpleasant.
Seals are cute, but not very sporty, especially if we see them mostly out of the water, where they’re at their worst. And Weddell Seals, while philosophically impressive, are not the most visually appealing pinniped.
Also they spend most of the time in a blizzard, which dampens the appeal. And there’s video of a seal birth. There has never, in the entire history of the world, been an aesthetically appealing birth.
If you tried to do what those newborn seals did, you would die 100 percent of the time. I don’t care how tough you think you are: you’d be dead. Maximum difficulty points.
‘Baby seal vs. blizzard’ isn’t really a competition, and it’s not like they’re fighting each other. NB: Would watch baby seals fight each other. Think of the floof.
Not sports. Incredible, but not sports.
Scene 2: King Penguins
Half a million penguins jam themselves onto one beach on the island of South Georgia to raise their chicks. When the parents go off to fish, the chicks are meant to stay where they’ve been left. But sometimes they don’t! Naughty penguins!
Honestly, it’s hard to know what to make of king penguins. They’re beautiful, graceful animals (well, the adults are), despite what Herman Melville might have to say about general penguinkind in his Encantadas:
What outlandish beings are these? … Their bodies are grotesquely misshapen; their bills short; their feet seemingly legless; while the members at their sides are neither fin, wing, nor arm. And truly neither fish, flesh, nor fowl is the penguin … without exception the most ambiguous and least lovely creature yet discovered by man. As if ashamed of her failure, Nature keeps this ungainly child hidden away at the ends of the earth.
But kings suffer when there are emperors about, and there’s no exception here. King penguins are like emperor penguins except smaller and shittier, and as a result it’s hard to take them seriously. Naughty penguins.
More floof balls! Except this time there are more of them and they’re not being absolutely battered by a blizzard, which improves things. Also, they sometimes chase smaller floof balls, and that’s fun.
The penguin chicks’ jobs involve standing still and waiting for their parents to come back. This sounds easy, but y’all can’t even sit there for like 10 minutes without checking your phones, so ...
Also, a bonus point for one of the penguins being enough of a badass to peck an elephant seal. Incredible.
Getting lost is annoying, but not competitive. I guess at one point they have a mild battle over a small ball of fluff?
Not sports either.
Scene 3: Elephant Seals
Find me a nature documentary about the Antarctic without footage of male elephant seals FUCKING EACH OTHER UP. That’s right. There are none. Elephant seals can weigh up 8,000 pounds and get to 20 feet long. They are angry, hefty and horny, and they hate each other. They express this hatred through squaring up to one another and engaging in teeth-bared body-slamming, and it gets extremely bloody. Even though they’re protected by a layer of blubber almost 10 inches thick, elephant seals frequently hurt each other very badly.
This all leads to some good television and you’d be a fool not to take advantage of it. The BBC are not fools.
If you’re into big hefty boys going at it, go ahead and give this scene an extra point. But heft alone does not a perfect scene make, and the sheer gracelessness of an elephant seal battle means we’re going to have to ding it some points.
Imagine being fallen on by a four-ton seal. Now imagine that seal has huge teeth and is simultaneously trying to tear your neck open with them. Another scene which would definitely kill you, me, and everyone else who might ever read this.
An all-out fight over breeding rights between two monster seals? Yes. Yes, this is the good stuff. It’s not the best or longest elephant seal battle ever recorded, but there has never been a bad one.
Scene 4: Humpback Bubble Banquet
Humpback whales might not be the biggest whales in the ocean, but they’re probably the most interesting. Their social behaviour is (or seems) more interesting than the rorquals, and their hunting behaviour is also extremely cool. Here a shoal of humpbacks is concentrating a swarm of krill by using ‘bubble netting’. Since krill won’t swim through the bubbles they breathe out, the whales can control their movement, which makes them easier to eat.
This is a short scene, but it’s worth including.
I’ll be the first to admit it: I’m a whale person. Not, like, physically: the flippers would make typing difficult. But I’ve always loved whales. They’re huge, beautiful, and they do cool shit like make bubble spirals in the ocean. And these are particularly good bubble spirals.
I can also blow bubbles underwater, but I imagine I’d be practicing for Gladwellian hours before I got good enough to herd krill. Also, imagine trying to fit that many in your mouth at once. Challenging.
I have to admit that a half-inch shrimp thing vs. a whale is not much of a fight, even if there are billions of the little fuckers.
Probably sports? In my ideal world, synchronised bubble-netting would have a place at the Olympics.
Scene 5: Grey-Headed Albatross
Albatross? Albatrosses? Pluralising these things is annoying. Anyway, the scene. As it turns out, climate change is messing with, well, the climate, and that has had the effect of increasing wind speed on storms in the Southern Ocean, and making those storms more frequent.
Grey-headed albatross(es) breed right in the path of these storms, and that means that when chicks are left alone they have to hunker down in their nests against the fury of 70 mph winds. Unsurprisingly, many fail. And if they’re blown out of their nests, thanks to a twist of evolution, their parents don’t recognise them until they get back in. And that means they’re on their own until they can climb back. Are baby birds good at climbing? Reader, baby birds are not good at climbing.
Attenborough tells us that this particular grey-headed albatross colony is going through a massive decline. I believe it.
I’ve seen cuter fluffballs. In this very show, even! A bonus point for the adults being so beautiful, though. Seagulls may be ugly as sin, but make them large enough to glide and suddenly you have yourself some majesty.
Ok, the windchill would be unpleasant, but I could climb into those nests.
The chicks are struggling against their own tiredness and lack of climbing ability. Is transcending yourself the core of all competition? Probably.
Possibly sports? Mostly sad, to be honest. Here we have the Ottawa Senators of the natural world.
Scene 6: Gentoo Penguin vs. Orcas
Oh, my God. This is possibly the coolest thing I have ever seen. Penguins are incredible underwater. They’re agile, smart and fast. Killer whales, however, are faster and smarter, which means the only possible hope a penguin chased by a whale has is to use its advantage in maneuvering to somehow find an escape route.
The cinematography in this scene is exquisite. As the chase is right up at the surface, with the penguin frequently jumping out of the water and right over the whales, drone footage lets us see the whole thing play out from above, giving us a full-field perspective on a dogfight which would make a WW2 fighter ace whistle in appreciation. This is unbelievable.
Unfortunately it’s also four orcas against one penguin. So, uh, you know how it ends.
I would hang this scene on my living room wall, and then stare at it for several hours a day. The sheer power of the orcas combined with the dazzling agility of the penguin and the overhead view makes this scene extraordinary even for a BBC nature production.
Those underwater cuts! The repeated jumpings-over of whales. This is nature at its most difficult. That poor, heroic little penguin.
All right, so four big whales against one penguin is not much of a fight.
Definitely sports. And although it’s tempting to ding it because of the lack of competitiveness, some of y’all will sit through the Patriots playing the Dolphins.
Scene 7: Gentoo Penguin vs. Leopard Seals
Melville would enjoy the role mid-sized penguins serve in the Antarctic food chain. They sit in the middle, eating small fish and krill and in turn being eaten in large amounts by the continent’s coolest predators. We’ve already seen orcas, so now it’s time for leopard seals to get in on the action.
Leopard seals are vicious things. They’re 10 feet long and their jaws are almost crocodilian, evoking thoroughly un-seal-like feelings when you look at the rows of big, interlocking and very lethal teeth. They like eating penguins. And, like the albatross chicks, climate change isn’t helping the gentoos — the region’s glaciers are falling apart, leaving acres of ‘brash’ ice between the penguin colonies and the open ocean. This ice is hard for the penguins to navigate, and perfect for an ambush predator.
The penguins have to scrabble over blocks of ice that could crush and kill them while being stalked from below by a hungry monster seal. That sounds like a bad day to me!
We’ve seen Weddell seals and elephant seals, but leopard seals are very different and altogether nastier critters. They’re not without their charms, though, and watching a top predator at work is sort of fun. Even if they’re extremely brutal.
One mark off for the bit where both penguin and seal end up on an iceberg. Neither is anything but ridiculous-looking out of the water.
Depending on your point of view, this is either very easy — the penguins are sitting ducks — or very hard. Trying to scrabble through the floating ice to get to open water looks utterly miserable.
Some of these penguins put up a pretty impressive, and pretty surprising fight. Good work, little critters.
Probably sports? Swimming is a sport. Climbing is a sport. Ice-scrabbling ... not a sport, yet, but we’re open-minded here.
Scene 8: Under the Ice
Below the Antarctic ice, conditions are surprisingly friendly, and inveterate drama plays out in slow motion. Starfish and urchins are chased by huge predatory worms. Blind nudibranchs search for mates in miniature forests of sponges and anemones. Those anemones are hunted by jellyfish — or so the jellyfish thinks, anyway.
Cool, in a creepy, slow-motion way.
Looking for food and mates must be quite hard when you can’t move very quickly and you can’t see very well.
Jellyfish vs. anemone is an interesting but quite one-sided battle.
Not sports at all. Getting a look under the Antarctic ice is neat anyway.
Scene 9: Southern Right Whales
“They were so trusting and inquisitive that they swam right up to the whaler’s boats. And the whalers called them ‘right whales’ because they were the right whales to hunt.” #SevenWorldsOnePlanet pic.twitter.com/KU8bBA7BF0— BBC Earth (@BBCEarth) October 27, 2019
20th Century whaling, which happened on an industrial scale, nearly wiped out every species of great whale. And southern right whales, the easiest, slowest, most-inquisitive targets, were hit the hardest. 99.9 percent of the population was killed — but frankly it’s a wonder any of them survived at all.
In the years since the whaling moratorium, however, the tiny fraction of survivors has proved robust enough to begin a small, fragile recovery. It’s grim times on the planet, and hope is nice to have.
I assume you were expecting a Melville quote here, and a rather gloomy southern right whale (still gloomier after it has its head removed) does indeed make an appearance in Moby-Dick. But, friends, I refuse to be that predictable.
Right whales are ugly, ponderous things, devoid of the grandeur of rorquals and humpbacks. And the bay in which this scene is shot is also too murky for good filming.
Pretty much the least sports possible. But a) it’s good to hear that the whale population is starting to recover and b) there was still more action than in that San Francisco-Washington game a few weeks back.
Overall sports tally: Some of this is sports
Two are definitely sports, three probablies, and four nos. That’s not a bad rate, and to be honest it’s a fantastic nature show and you should watch it, even if you’re mostly in it for the sports. Also, and I don’t want this to sound like a throwaway note at the end of an article, even though it is: CLIMATE CHANGE IS TERRIBLE AND WE NEED TO DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT. AS A COLLECTIVE, NOT JUST INDIVIDUALS. ME COMPOSTING DOESN’T SEEM TO BE DOING SHIT. Thanks.